‘Conservatives, Immigrants, and the Romantic Imagination’ Up At Three Quarks Daily

My essay ‘Conservatives, Immigrants, and the Romantic Imagination‘ is up at Three Quarks Daily. The following is an abstract of sorts:

American immigrants, especially the first and second generations, were sometimes reckoned a safe vote for the Republican Party’s brand of conservatism. This was not just the case with immigrants from formerly communist countries who might be reckoned willing and enthusiastic consumers of the Republican Party and American conservatism’s historical anti-communist stance. Rather, American immigrants of all stripes have often shown a marked allegiance to conservative causes and claims. This trend, which did not always translate into major electoral gains, was attenuated by the Republican Party’s continuing adoption of nativism and crude populism, of xenophobia, of the crudest forms of racism and exclusivism. But it was not always thus; there were good reasons to imagine the immigrant was a  was a possible Republican and conservative mark.

In my essay, I argue that the immigrant imagination, tinged as it is with a hint of the romantic, bears some explanatory responsibility for this political predilection. In particular, by examining recent descriptions of conservative intellectuals–ranging from Edmund Burke to William Buckley Jr.– as a species of romantic reactionaries, and comparing them to immigrant self-descriptions of their migratory journeys of arrival and accomplishment, I claim that the immigrant and the conservative are united by a species of self-conception that views them as outsiders subverting and eventually mastering–in their highly individual and particular ways–a dominant system. Like the conservative, the immigrant too, sometimes finds himself suggesting ‘the ladder be pulled up,’ now that he is aboard. The immigrant is in sympathy with a conservative vision then, because romantically, like the conservative, he sees himself as an outsider who has ‘made it.’

I will explore this claim–via an autobiographical perspective–in the American context, thus illuminating the ways in which so-called ‘model minorities’ have conceived of their place in the American nation. The reflexively conservative standpoint I adopted when I was a brand-new migrant to the US should help explain why immigrants have not always been successful in building multi-racial alliances with African-Americans, and thus, why American anti-racism politics remains handicapped by a lack of solidarity between its demographic components. They suggest the Republican Party could further find in its electoral toolbox a rhetorical appeal to divide the current anti-Republican coalition by attacking one of its most vulnerable points.

Conversations (Brief Ones) With Richard Spencer, Neo-Nazi

A few years ago, while working out at my gym in Brooklyn, I was paired with a young man named Richard Spencer for a ‘partner workout’ (I learned his first name during our pre-class introductions; the rest followed once we began our workout.) We took turns performing the assigned exercises at intervals, encouraging the other one as we rested in between our turns. After we worked out, Spencer asked me what I did for a living; he was intrigued to find out I was a professor of philosophy. Spencer said he was interested in philosophy, and had taken some classes while he was a student at the University of Chicago a few years previously. (Indeed, his MA might have been in philosophy; I cannot now remember.) Spencer asked me who my ‘favorite’ philosopher was; I said I did not have one but found much of interest in a motley crew I had grown fond of over the years. Spencer said he was interested in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche; I said I was too, and hoped to teach a class on his provocative doctrines someday. I do not know if our conversation flourished over this point; I’ve often found conversations about Nietzsche frustrating because, all too often, I find my interlocutors honing in on doctrinal points–like the Übermensch, for instance–that are far less interesting to me than many other more interesting aspects of Nietzsche’s work. In any case, Spencer said he was interested in Heidegger too; I said I found Heidegger quite inscrutable at the best of times. Our conversation floundered at this stage; Spencer wanted to talk a bit more about Heidegger but I could sense his understanding of Heidegger was minimal, and given my own lack of interest, did not feel I could meaningfully engage him in a conversation about Heidegger. (I’ve had similar conversations with many folks who want to talk to me about Heidegger; they are intrigued by Heidegger–or at least, they feel they should be; they ‘read’ a bit of Heidegger; they imagine they have figured out enough of the language to start using it to indicate they have read Heidegger. )

I met and worked out with Spencer a couple of more times. On each occasion, he was unfailingly courteous and friendly, and always keen to strike up conversation with me. He clearly considered himself an intellectually inclined person, and conversations with a professor of philosophy seemed to fit into his conception of what a good workout at the gym should include. A month or so later, he shook my hand after a workout and said he was going to say goodbye; he was leaving New York City. He bade farewell to the coaches at the gym and was gone.

This past election night, while watching the results come in with a pair of friends–who coach at the gym I work out at–I learned that the young man I used to work out with was a Richard Spencer who has acquired some recent notoriety as a prominent figure on the American ‘alt-right’, as “an American white nationalist known [who] is president of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think-tank, and Washington Summit Publishers, an independent publishing firm [and] describes himself as an identitarian.”

In an article on Spencer (written back in 2010, the year after I met Spencer), Alex Knepper wrote:

The ‘Alternative Right’ most diverges with American conservatism in the way that it takes a sledgehammer to classical liberalism. A crude ‘might is right’ philosophy is applied to human action, with the understanding that group loyalty and self-preservation within the collective is the only way to prosper. Richard Spencer seems to have picked at least part of it up after a hideously poor reading of the works of Friedrich Nietzsche — he is a self-proclaimed Nietzsche fanatic (although, like most wannabe-ubermensches, Spencer is little more than a scribbler).

I did not talk for long or deeply enough with Spencer to figure out whether his reading of Nietzsche was a “hideously poor” one or not; (Spencer clearly  imagines himself a romantic Nietzschean figure of sorts; this hokey article, titled “Facing the Future as a Minority” features Caspar Friedrich‘s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog–of course.) I do find it interesting, in retrospect, that the two philosophers Spencer wanted to talk about are both associated with Nazism: unfairly in Nietzsche’s case, and appropriately so in Heidegger’s. Now I wish I had inquired further, but back then, our conversations simply did not go far enough. There wasn’t enough there to engage with.

Susan Sontag on Truth’s ‘Value’

Susan Sontag, in reviewing Simone Weil’s Selected Essays, offers some remarks on the nature and function of truth, and its placement in our schema of intellectual and emotional endeavor. In doing so, she strikes a slightly Nietzschean note:

Perhaps there are certain ages which do not need truth as much as they need a deepening of the sense of reality, a widening of the imagination. I, for one, do not doubt that the sane view of the world is the true one. But is that what is always wanted, truth? The need for truth is not constant; no more than is the need for repose. An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit, which vary. The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie.

So, the ‘sane’ is the true, but it is not always the most desirable. Truth–as the remark for the ‘need for repose’ indicates–may only represent a kind of quiescence, an accepting of the world as is, an illusory freezing of its vitality. Other kinds of ‘ideas’, which may shatter this calm, disturb this peace, distort the placidity and stillness, may do more, may ‘serve’ us better; they may provoke us and move us to further inquiry, to further activity, to a continuation of our physical and spiritual quests. Later, we learn ‘the truth is balance’, an imagery that confirms the impressions we have been led to form of it: an equilibrium of sorts, a compromise, an arbitration of compelling impulses. Truth is moderation; not always desirable.

And then,:

In the respect we pay to such lives [as Simone Weil’s], we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world—and mystery is just what the secure possession of the truth, an objective truth, denies. In this sense, all truth is superficial; and some (but not all) distortions of the truth, some (but not all) insanity, some (but not all) unhealthiness, some (but not all) denials of life are truth-giving, sanity-producing, health-creating, and life-enhancing.

Here the ‘possession of truth’ entails a denial of ‘mystery’; given truth’s metaphysical standing these may be the most primeval puzzles of all. And taking on board of the truth is ultimately ‘superficial’, the denial of the mystery, the acceptance of the surface baldness of the true statement, the refusal to look further, the happy satisfaction with the bare presentation of the world.

So, truth, in these depictions, becomes a life-denying force. It speaks of the cessation of motion, of resting; the peace it offers is that of the endless repose in the grave. Truth becomes a paralytic dogma; it is literally, the end of inquiry. It thus generates an irony about itself: its pursuit might be life-giving but its gaining might not be.

These remarks’ Nietzschean flavor should be clear, for in them Sontag is doing no more and no less than struggling to find a more appropriate–and perhaps less exalted–placement for truth in our ‘table of values.’

Miguel De Unamuno: Conservative War-Lover?

My philosophical education, just like everyone else’s, is far from complete, and of course, never shall be. One omission from my readings has been the work of Miguel De Unamuno, whose The Tragic Sense of Life has been adorning my bookshelves for some twenty years now. Recently, I set out to clean up some shelf space and noticing that my paperback copy–picked up from a Broadway bookseller–was in especially ratty condition, resolved to dispose of it, but to do so only after reading it.

As I read The Tragic Sense of Life, a book committed to clarifying and expounding on its central thesis that ‘the essence of man lies in his endeavor to be forever,’ such that ‘faith in human hope, the desire for immortality sustained throughout a lifetime’ can be read as the meaning of the ‘tragic sense’ in question, I wondered about a dimly-remembered description of him as a conservative. While there are streaks of ‘conventional’ conservatism visible in his fulminations against Nietzsche, what really caught my eye were his invocations of war. I was especially struck by these passages as I was reminded of the description–in Corey Robin‘s The Reactionary Mindof the conservative spirit as one fascinated by violence.

Here is Exhibit Numero Uno:

A human soul is worth all the universe, someone–I know not whom–has said and said magnificiently. A human soul, mind you! Not a human life. Not this life. And it happens that the less a man believes in the soul–that is to say in this conscious immortality, personal and concrete–the more he will exaggerate the worth of this poor transitory life. This is the source from which springs all that effeminate, sentimental ebullition against war. True, a man ought not to wish to die, but the death to be renounced is the death of the soul. ‘Whosoever will save his life shall lose it,’ says the Gospel; but it does not say ‘whosoever will save his soul,’ the immortal–or at any rate, which we believe and wish to be immortal.

What is striking here is the language of ‘effeminate’ and ‘sentimental’ as adjectives to be applied to ‘ebullition.’ Not only is the anti-war sentiment unhinged, it flirts dangerously with effeminacy and sentimentalism; it is weak and pathetic, reeking of bouquets and rosewater. Somehow, inescapably, Frederick the Great‘s lines ‘Dogs, would you live forever?’, snarled at reluctant soldiers at the Battle of Kolin in 1757 come to mind. There, humans were animal-like for fearing violence and death; here they are sentimental, weeping, women.

And here is Exhibit Numero Dos:

In the world of living beings, the struggle for life establishes an association, and a very close one, not only between those who unite together in combat against a common foe, but between the combatants themselves. And is there any possible association more intimate than that uniting the animal that eats another and the animal that is eaten, between the devourer and the devoured? And if this is clearly seen in the struggle between individuals, it is still more evident in the struggle between peoples. War has always been the most effective factor of progress, even more than commerce. It is through war that conquerors and conquered learn to know each other and in consequence to love each other.

This passage is imbued with a very particular romanticism in its invocation of the life-enriching power of violent struggle. More ambitiously, with the ascription of creative and progressive force to war: from destruction and chaos, a new order. That conservative vision certainly sounds familiar in these days and times.

The End is Nigh: The ACA Is Upheld (Sort Of)

Today’s blog post writing hasn’t gone so well. I thought of writing a post on the correspondence between Voltaire and Rousseau, as a way of reminding ourselves of the 300th birth anniversary of the latter, then, perhaps commenting on the connections between Frankenstein and Romanticism, and then finally, noting Aquinas’ resolution of the theological problems caused by cannibalism. But nothing went anywhere. (Perhaps I’ll return to these fascinating topics at a future point in time.) I was distracted, as most people this morning were, by the impending news of the Supreme Court’s ruling on you-know-what (more precisely, National Federation of Independent Business et al. vs Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services et al. ) So, the sheer force of circumstance have forced me to junk all those drafts and turn to noting this momentous decision.

Then, finally at 10:08 AM, the news. A 5-4 ruling (Roberts, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan for; Kennedy, Scalia, Alito, Thomas against) that rules ‘ the entire ACA is upheld, with the exception that the federal government’s power to terminate states’ Medicaid funds is narrowly read.’ (from the SCOTUS live blog).

More: the individual mandate is a violation of the Commerce Clause, but survives as a tax:

Our precedent demonstrates that Congress had the power to impose the exaction in Section 5000A under the taxing power, and that Section 5000A need not be read to do more than impose a tax. This is sufficient to sustain it.

So, the individual mandate survives as a tax. Frank Pasquale has just pointed me to a remark made by Mark Weiner in 2010:

As a constitutional matter, the bottom line is that challenges to Congress’s power to tax and spend are never successful, and I think it would absolutely stun the tax community if this tax were held unconstitutional.

The SCOTUS live blog continues:

[A] majority of the Court holds that the Medicaid expansion is constitutional but that it w/b unconstitutional for the federal government to withhold Medicaid funds for non-compliance with the expansion provisions….the Constitution requires that states have a choice about whether to participate in the expansion of eligibility; if they decide not to, they can continue to receive funds for the rest of the program.

Part of the majority opinion reads:

Nothing in our opinion precludes Congress from offering funds under the ACA to expand the availability of health care, and requiring that states accepting such funds comply with the conditions on their use. What Congress is not free to do is to penalize States that choose not to participate in that new program by taking away their existing Medicaid funding.” (p. 55)

Plenty more to come later. For the time being, in lieu of serious commentary on the ruling, I’ve been juvenile, sending off a series of Tweets and Facebook updates:

The stars and stripes have been morphed into the hammer and sickle

The hammer and the sickle are gleaming, because a crescent moon is shining on them

Starting today, turbans replace baseball caps as symbols of America

No more, “Wassup bro?” – from now on it’s “Greeting comrades!”

Alternatively, you could say “Salaam brothers!”

Lame, yes, I know, but come on, why so serious?

And with that, I’m going to wind up this morning’s ‘blogging,’ one spectacularly derailed by the Supreme Court, and the millions who decided to tune in to this piece of political theater.

Arendt and Sontag on Conservatism, Romanticism, and ‘Interesting’ Politics

Last week at Brooklyn College, the Wolfe Institute‘s Spring 2012 Faculty Study Group met to discuss Corey Robin‘s The Reactionary Mind, which aims to identify substantive theses central to that political tradition by way of an intellectual history of conservatism; more precisely, by close readings of some central works of the conservative canon. (The Faculty Study Group is organized by the Wolfe Institute every semester to read and discuss an academic work of interest; this semester’s selection of The Reactionary Mind had already generated some pre-discussion controversy.)

Our meeting last week was considerably enhanced by Corey Robin himself,  who joined our discussions of Chapters 6, 7, 8. I expected the discussion to not be restricted to these chapters, of course, and I was not disappointed. Over the course of our two-hour interaction, we were able to get Corey to describe the book’s central thesis–that conservatism is reactionary, counter-revolutionary politics, infused with romantic sentiment, responding vigorously to perceived threats –, clarify some theoretical points, and consider possible sharpenings and applications of his thesis. (One extension of great interest to me is to apply Corey’s central claims to conservatism beyond American and European shores.)

One of the most interesting clarifications of Robin’s thesis was the centrality of the romantic impulse in conservatism. Indeed, it seemed, after our discussions, that the romantic impulse is perhaps even more central than the reactionary, counter-revolutionary component of conservatism; it certainly explains conservative fascination with war, the attraction it presents to ‘outsiders,’ its glorification of strength and individual striving. (I intend to write a post very soon that explores the connection between the sentiments of the immigrant and the romantic imagination.)

There are some interesting theoretical resonances of this association of conservatism with romanticism.

First, here is Hannah Arendt (again!) in On Revolution, Penguin, 1990, page 197:

However that may be, the reason why the men of the revolutions turned to antiquity for inspiration and guidance was most emphatically not a romantic yearning for past and tradition. Romantic conservatism – and which conservatism worth its salt has not been romantic? – was a consequence of the revolutions, more specifically of the failure of revolution in Europe; and this conservatism turned to the Middles Ages, not to antiquity; it glorified those centuries when the secular realm of worldly politics received its light from the splendour of the Church, that is, when the public realm lived from borrowed light. The men of the revolutions prided themselves on their ‘enlightenment’, on their intellectual freedom from tradition, and since they had not yet discovered the spiritual perplexities of this situation, they were still untainted by the sentimentalities about the past and traditions in general which were to become so characteristic for the intellectual climate of the early nineteenth century.[emphasis added]

Then, here is Susan Sontag, in ‘An Argument About Beauty’, (from At The Same Time: Essays and Speeches, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2007, page 9), where, after considering that works of art might be described as ‘interesting’ as opposed to ‘beautiful’ in an attempt to make them ‘more inclusive’:

What is interesting? Mostly, what has not previously been thought beautiful (or good). The sick are interesting, as Nietzsche points out. The wicked too. To name something as interesting implies challenging old orders of praise; such judgments aspire to be found insolent or at least ingenious. Connoisseurs of ‘the interesting’–whose antonym is ‘the boring’–appreciate clash, not harmony. Liberalism is boring, declares Carl Schmitt in The Concept of the Political written in 1932. (The following year he joined the Nazi Party.) A politics conducted according to liberal principles lacks drama, flavor, conflict, while strong autocratic politics–and war–are interesting. [links added]